A while back I stumbled across Charles Wesley’s Christmas hymn, “Glory Be to God on High.” This is a superb text on the incarnation of Christ, and I thought this would be a good time to recommend it here. We’ve sung it to the 18th century tune Amsterdam.
The hymns is a meditation on the message of the angels in Luke 2. Wesley sees the angels’s announcement to the shepherds as more than the mere news of Jesus’ birth. He sees in this great part of the Christmas story the angels themselves gloriously marveling at the incarnation of our Lord. This is the theme that runs through the entire hymn, that the angels themselves now joyfully gasp at the theanthropic person; this Son of God whom they have known and worshiped has now assumed to himself a true human nature.
The first verse is introduced with the words of the angels in Luke 2:14. The verse proceeds to set before the believer the juxtaposition of real wonder of Christmas, the hypostatic union of the God-man Jesus Christ. “God comes down,” this is the God who “bows the sky” and simultaneously “shows himself our Friend.” The “invisible” God “appears”; the “blest” God who is the self-existing “I AM” “sojourns in this vale of tears,” all in the person of Christ.
The second verse returns to the angels, marveling that these messengers who once worshipped the eternal Son of God, “their Maker” in his pre-incarnate state, now bring the news of “their humbled Lord” to “mortals.” Welsey then returns to the mystery of the incarnation, how in the incarnate Christ the external form of his preincarnate “majesty” is “emptied” (surely a better articulation of the kenosis than his “And Can it Be”), that his “dazzling glories” are invisible in the humiliated Jesus Christ. The last line strikes me as the kind of revelry the church fathers had in the glorious union of eternal God and finite man in the one person of Christ: “Being’s source begins to be, and God Himself is born!”
The third stanza continues along these lines. In Jesus is the union of “eternal Son of God” and “mortal Son of Man.” The one whom “heav’n cannot contain” (1 Kings 8:27) dwells “in an earthly clod.” The next phrase seems to sum up the whole hymn: “Stand amazed, ye heav’ns, at this.” The “Lord” of all is now “humbled to the dust,” even lying in a manger.
Finally, in the fourth verse, we ourselves join “with the angels” to worship the “Prince of Peace.” We, with them, “shout Immanuel’s name.” In response to the incarnate Lord, we do the unthinkable, we “bow” our “Knees and hearts” to one who is “of our flesh and of our bone.” The eternal Son of God “is our Brother now” (Heb 2:17), “and God is all our own.”
The hymn in its entirety follows:
Glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend;
God comes down, He bows the sky,
And shows Himself our Friend!
God th’invisible appears,
God the Blest, the Great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is His Name.
Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring;
Emptied of His majesty,
Of His dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s Source begins to be,
And God Himself is born!
See th’eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of Man,
Dwelling in an earthly clod
Whom Heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heav’ns, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies
Humbled to the dust He is,
And in a manger lies!
We, the sons of men, rejoice,
The Prince of Peace proclaim,
With the angels lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s Name;
Knees and hearts to Him we bow;
Of our flesh, and of our bone,
Jesus is our Brother now,
And God is all our own!